Welcome to the social mess?

With new data portability projects from Facebook, MySpace, and Google, the social-networking experience is on the verge of getting either a lot smoother or a lot sloppier.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Google Friend Connect, Facebook Connect, MySpace Data Availability, OpenID, DataPortability: Managing a bunch of different log-ins and passwords suddenly seems easy and straightforward.

Within a matter of days, some of the biggest names on the Web announced new projects that all have a roughly similar aim of making it possible for Web users to have a single social-media identity across the Internet--"data portability," as the general term has come to be known. MySpace.com was first out of the gate with the announcement of Data Availability, a way for members of the News Corp.-owned social network to share their profile data with partner sites including eBay, Yahoo, and Twitter. The next day, Facebook launched Facebook Connect, an extension of its developer API so that third-party sites can incorporate Facebook authentication and user identities.

The Google-created Friend Connect, announced Monday, is a little bit different. With its goal of bringing the connectivity of the social Web to its less social online brethren, the project takes a cue from two much lower-profile social-networking strategies: MyBlogLog, a Yahoo-acquired widget manufacturer that lets readers of popular blogs socialize with one another; and Flux, launched by Viacom to provide interoperable social features to its own Web sites but open to other participants as well.

Flux, developed by an old-media powerhouse that didn't exactly have much social-networking cred to fuel it, and start-up MyBlogLog, which thus far has failed to break out beyond the tech blog community, haven't been success stories (yet). Will having the world's biggest hubs of social networking and developer activity make the playing field any different? It's a positive sign that Google and MySpace have pledged to use open developer standards in their respective projects; Google, for instance, will take advantage of OpenID, OAuth, and the OpenSocial standard that it developed in-house before spinning it off as an independent organization. Facebook hasn't released technical details yet.

But one prominent data portability evangelist hinted that we're at an inflection point where the social Web could either become more connected or just more confusing.

"Any time that data becomes accessible, preferably with open standards, is a good move toward the open data portability vision," said Chris Saad, the entrepreneur spearheading the DataPortability Workgroup, a consortium of techies working toward the common goal of translating identities from one social site to another. "What's effectively happening now is that we are actually two or three steps closer toward doing proper interoperable data portability, but we all need to continue to work closely with those vendors and the rest of the community to make sure they evolve in the right direction."

Saad characterized the Facebook, Google, and MySpace announcements as "internal brands that are technically the beginning of a data portability play." All three companies have representatives in the DataPortability Workgroup, even though none of the week's announcements were developed in conjunction with the group.

"I don't think their job is done, and I don't think it's inevitable," Saad said. "We need to keep a watchful eye on the fact that these projects are actually evolving toward the best practices (of DataPortability) as opposed to trying to fragment the market."

One thing to keep in mind is that there's still time for all three of these projects to change and evolve before any Web users actually see them in action. Facebook is not yet at the point of releasing the technicalities of Facebook Connect other than the fact that it's an evolution of its existing API; MySpace's Data Availability is rolling out slowly with only a few launch partners. A general launch of Friend Connect, Google director of engineering David Glazer said, will take "months."

In the meantime, expect plenty of speculation, plenty of criticism of "walled gardens," and at least one claim that data portability is dead in the water before it's even taken off. This is tech blogging we're talking about--would you expect anything less?